Sunday, September 11, 2016

Lord of the Riff Raff

Luke 15:1-10
[Here's an audio version of this post.]

Apple rolled out its new iPhone 7 this past week. It’s generated a lot of advance sales and buzz. That’s because the new phone has no headphone jack because it uses wireless earbuds, called airpods.

A big concern has arisen though: What if people lose their airpods? This burning question has been the subject online articles at Forbes, Marketwatch, The Daily Beast, Barron’s, and The Chicago Tribune, among other places. One article was headlined snarkily and accurately: "Entire world terrified about losing Apple AirPods that no one even owns yet."

Now, I love my Apple products. In fact, I love to go into Apple stores just to smell all the technology! But when I consider...

the young people likely to lose normal life spans or normal brain function because of their drinking water in Flint, Michigan...

or the people losing their lives because of interminable wars in places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan...

or parents and others losing family members to the horrors of drug-addiction...

or the lives of babies being lost when abortion is used as a birth control method...

or children losing their innocence in a global sex-crazed culture...

anxiety over losing a couple of airpods seems sinfully inconsequential.

Nonetheless, all this anxiety demonstrates a truth: The value we attach to things or people directly corresponds to the anxiety we feel over losing them as well as to the joy we experience when, after losing them, we find them again.

In Luke 15:1-10, today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells two parables. They’re both familiar to us.

In the first, Jesus tells the story of a shepherd charged with overseeing one-hundred sheep. One of the sheep gets away. Apparently, the shepherd believed that all his sheep mattered. So, he searched for the lost sheep, found it, carried it back to its place, then threw a party for his friends, all because this valuable thing that had been lost now was found.

In the second parable, Jesus tells the story of a woman who owns ten silver coins, then loses one. She scours the house until she finds the coin. Like the shepherd in the first parable, she invites her neighbors over for a celebration because this valuable thing that had been lost now was found.

Of course, Jesus didn’t tell these parables just to entertain us. (Although I remember hearing Dr. Henry Mitchell say at a lecture, "The opposite of entertainment is not education.") Jesus told parables to educate and inspire us. But mostly He told them to transform us.

To get in on the transforming power of these two parables, it’s important to remember the context within which Jesus told them. In the first two verses of our Gospel lesson, Luke gives us the context:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Two groups of people were present, each with their own motives for gathering around Jesus.

One group included tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors, in those days, of course, were hated people, shaking people down so that they could line their own pockets. They were thieves. We don’t know exactly what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of “sinners.” But He probably meant people who had, until this point, been unrepentant sinners, but now, like the tax collectors, saw in Jesus Someone Who bore the authority of God and the power of God’s love, Who would grant them God’s forgiveness and make their lives new.

The other group to whom Jesus spoke were Pharisees and teachers of God’s law, people who saw themselves as upright people above reproach, alarmed by Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and new life to those who repented and surrendered to Him. They were alarmed too that Jesus, while claiming to be from God, would spend His time with and sit down to party with such sinners. They gathered around Jesus so that they could gather incriminating evidence against Him.

It’s significant that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were horrified by Jesus eating with notorious sinners. For centuries, Jews had been looking forward to the day when they would sit at the great heavenly banquet with God’s anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ.

Isaiah 25:6 promised: “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.”

The feast was promised (and is promised) to all who trusted in God and in His Messiah. Well before the day that Jesus told the two parables in our lesson, people were starting to speak of Him as the Messiah. In Luke 9:20, after Jesus asks Peter and the other disciples who they think He is, Peter answers plainly: “God’s Messiah.”

For the Pharisees and teachers of the Jewish law, this was deeply disturbing. Now the One being called Messiah by some was feasting--hinting at the great banquet all who trust in God will enjoy in eternity--with the riff raff. Was Jesus saying that this collection of no goods and nobodies were going to feast with God and them in eternity?

Actually, that was close to what Jesus was saying. The riff raff who turned from sin and trusted in Christ would be welcome to the Messiah’s banquet. But the Pharisees and teachers of the law were, it turns out, a bit too confident about their own places at the table.

That’s why Jesus ends the first parable at verse 7, with these words: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

According to Jesus, there’s a party, an outbreak of the Messianic banquet, every time a single sinner turns from their sin and trusts in the Savior Who died and rose for them to give them new life. That’s good news, or as the Old English word we use without much thought, puts it, God-spell, Gospel!

Yes, Jesus is saying, all this riff raff will be at the banquet. And so will all the other riff raff who turn to Him in despair over their sins and turn to Him too with faith in Him as their only gracious God and King. (That’s gospel even for riff raff like you and me!)

But did you notice what Jesus also says in that verse to all the Pharisees and others who think that their goodness secures their reservations for the heavenly banquet? Did you see the little barb in Jesus' words? Jesus says that there will be a bigger party in heaven over one sinner who repents than over “ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Now I ask you, can you name a single person besides Jesus since Adam and Eve fell into sin who has had no need of repentance?

The Pharisees and teachers of the law thought that they needed no repentance. (And maybe we think that sometimes.) But, Jesus is saying, people who are confident in their own goodness need to think again.

Listen: Every sinner matters to God. Every sinner can receive grace that can transform us into God’s friends and transform the way we live each day. But that only happens for those who can acknowledge that they’re sinners in need of forgiveness, debtors to God for Whom Jesus has paid the price when He died on the cross.

True story: A seminary professor had just finished a lecture and was approached by a first year student with a big smile on his face. The professor had just lectured on temptation and sin, big topics. “Professor So and So,” the student said. “It’s amazing. But I just wanted you to know that it’s been seven years since I've been tempted to sin.” He was pleased with his own righteousness. The professor replied, “That’s about the worst thing I can imagine hearing.” The student’s expression changed, “Why?” “Because,” the professor told him, “it means that you’re so filled with self-righteousness that you’re not hearing God’s call to repent and trust in Jesus’ righteousness, rather than your own.” The professor was telling that student that he was really lost.

But the God we know in Jesus Christ can find lost people. And He can use believers in Christ like you and me to find them.

Another true story. A prominent Christian speaker was doing a seminar in Hawaii. The event was to begin in the evening and so, this speaker and some of his friends decided to grab an early dinner at a local greasy spoon. A group of women, whose profession was obvious, came in at the same time for coffee. The Christian speaker learned that it was the birthday of one of the women--we’ll call her Doris--and that at the end of the evening, at about three in the morning, Doris and the other women would gather again for a late night supper before heading for their homes.

The speaker and his friends hatched a plan. They bought a birthday cake, candles, streamers, noisemakers, and went back to the diner to await the women’s return. When the women got back, they threw a birthday party for Doris. They led everyone in singing Happy Birthday. Doris, who hadn’t been treated with genuine kindness in a long time, wept.

Later, someone asked the speaker why he and his friends had thrown this party. “Because,” he said, “we’re Christians.” “Really?” the questioner said. “What kinds of Christian are you?” “The kind of Christian who throws parties for prostitutes at three o’clock in the morning.” That speaker and his friends knew the truth of Paul's words in Romans that tell us that it's the kindness of God that leads sinners to repentance. That speaker and his friends were Christians who treated lost people exactly the way Jesus treats lost people, including you and me. He welcomes us and invites us to a party!

Every sinner (that's all of us) and every dying person (that's all of us too) matters to God.

You matter to God.

God doesn’t want to lose you. God doesn’t want to lose anybody.

God has dedicated Himself and He’s called us to the pursuit of one single purpose: Finding those dying in sin and hopelessness and helping them to receive the Good News of Jesus Christ!

On the cross, Jesus bore the punishment we deserve for sin, so that as we turn from sin, we are set free from death and share in His resurrection. We become part of His banquet, even today as we trustingly receive His body and blood in Holy Communion.

In response to Christ, this week, I ask you to do two things.

First, let Christ find you! Let Christ call you to repentance, and cover you with His forgiveness. Live in His love. Relish God’s celebration of His love for you.

Second, ask God to help you to invite the lost ones in your life to “come and taste the goodness of the Lord.” Do that for one simple reason: Everyone matters to God.

That, and because God loves to throw a party when the lost are found. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This message was shared during both worship services today.]

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